Monday, May 19, 2008

Is There a Left vom Tag?

There are four primary guards in the Liechtenauer school of swordsmanship: Ochs (Ox), Pflug (Plow), Alber (Fool) and vom Tag (From the Roof). Each of the first three guards, Ochs, Pflug and Alber, are explicitly described in the Fechtb├╝cher as having a right and a left variant, although in the case of Alber the difference is limited to which foot is forward—all other parts of the guard are the same on both sides since the sword is held on the center line.

But what of vom Tag? No primary source even suggests a left-side version of this guard (for right handed swordsmen, at least; see below). Why is that? The answer lies in a careful reading of the Fechtb├╝cher. Master Sigmund Ringeck tells us this:  “If you want to strike from your right side make sure your left foot is forward; if you want to strike from your left side, the right foot must be forward.”

In this section Master Sigmund is referring to the Zufechten: the first phase of the combat when the combatants are still at a range which will require a step in order to hit; once a cut has been made and displaced the combatants are said to be in the Krieg (The War). You can be in any guard in the Zufechten, of course, but in this case let’s focus on vom Tag. When you strike from the Zufechten you are supposed to strike from your right for a stroke from the right and vice-versa. But then Master Sigmund goes on to say:

“Note: This tenet is addressed to left-handers and right-handers. If you are a right-handed fencer and you are closing to an opponent and you think you can hit him, do not strike the first blow from your left side because you are weak there and you cannot resist if he binds strongly against your blade. Because of this, strike from the right side, you can work strongly am Schwert (on the sword) and you can use all techniques you like.”

In other words, combining these two quotes, Master Sigmund is telling us that a right-handed swordsman who wants to cut from vom Tag should start with his left foot forward and cut from the right side (with a passing step). And yet we know there are cuts from both sides in a fight because Master Sigmund tells us this: “Note: This is the first tenet of the long sword: learn to strike blows equally well from both sides if you want to learn to fence well.”

These two quotes seem contradictory unless you read them very carefully: Master Sigmund said: “If you are a right-handed fencer and you are closing to an opponent and you think you can hit him, do not strike the first blow from your left side…” By “closing”, Master Sigmund is clearly referring to an action from the Zufechten, i.e., before a bind; obviously, then, if you are not closing, i.e., you are in the Krieg, you can and should throw blows from your left if the tactical situation warrants it. Here’s an example of a blow thrown from the left in the Krieg:

“Note: When you bind at the sword with strength and your adversary pulls his sword upwards and strikes at your head from the other side, then bind strongly with the true edge and strike him on the head.”

In other words, your opponent cuts at you and you displace the blow so that you are in the bind (or vice-versa; how you get there is immaterial). Your opponent then pulls his blade back and over yours to cut to your other side, so you respond by turning your hands and cutting him on the other side while binding your long edge against his second cut. So you obviously strike from your left, but it would be the height of foolishness to go from the bind to left vom Tag and then cut: You simply lever your blade back with your hands—assuming no guard at all, really—and cut again. No left vom Tag required.

So, does this prove there is no left-side version of vom Tag? If you think about it, you’ll realize that there is never any reason to assume vom Tag in the Krieg because of the way you pull the point back: if you pull your hands back into vom Tag when you’re in range—in the Krieg—your opponent will kill you with a Nachreisen while you’re moving into guard. Thus, it’s clear that you will only assume vom Tag in the Zufechten, and since all blows thrown from the Zufechten are to be thrown from your right side (if you’re right handed), it should be obvious that there’s no need for a left-side version of vom Tag.

People love symmetry. If you tell someone there’s a cut or guard on the right side then he will expect there to be a matching version on the left side and will feel somewhat disappointed if no such symmetry exists; most modern books on longsword fighting include a left-side version of vom Tag for just this reason. In fact, in my longsword study guide (Introduction to Liechtenauer’s Longsword) I include a left-side version of vom Tag, and I even teach it to my beginning students. In my case, however, I find it a convenient way to introduce beginning students to cutting from the left side; later, I teach my students how to cut from the left in the Krieg without using left vom Tag.

In conclusion, then, there are no circumstances in which a left-side version of vom Tag could be used by a right-handed swordsman without violating the tactical principles of der Kunst des Fechtens. The left-side version can be useful for teaching beginning students cuts from the left, but later they should be taught how to do so in accordance with Liechtenauer’s principles.

Additional Note:  I just found another blogger who was harshly critical of the above essay.  He argues that he found left vom Tag in some late-period sources such as Mair.  See here.  Sigh.  Folks, must I preface every post I wrote with a series of notes reiterating the same things every time?  Our Schule practices the canonical art of Johannes Liechtenauer.  We rely on the sources published from the  late fourteenth through late fifteenth centuries.  The reason for this is that while every master seems to have made some small changes to Liechtenauer’s art, the later masters (Meyer, Mair, etc.) changed in monumental ways, to the point where it is fair to ask if it is really Liechtenauer’s art at all.  Inspired by him, yes, but radically different, and in many cases suffering from taint by outside source (e.g., the von Eyb Fechtbuch with clear evidence of being infected by the Fiore school).

Yes, some of these later sources did radically violate Liechtenauer’s principles by including some version of something similar to left vom Tag.  They also included dozens of extra guards in direct contravention of Liechtenauer’s rule that only four guards should be used, and Meyer even eliminated thrusting—without which Liechtenauer’s art can scarcely be said to exist.  I’m sorry, but only someone with a limited understanding of Liechtenauer’s art would use something from one of these late sources as proof of an argument for what Liechtenauer taught.

The author of the blog I mentioned above did raise one point worth actually refuting:  He points out that Ringeck included something called “Nebenhut.”  In the blogger’s mind, this is an extra guard made up by Ringeck.  And if Ringeck could make up a guard, why then could not other guards be made up, too—specifically, left vom Tag.  In fact, Nebenhut is not actually a guard, per se:  It is a position to which you cut in order to lure an opponent in so that you can perform the plays of the Hinderbinden which Ringeck developed.

Bottom line:  We are told that you should not cut from the left in the Zufechten.  You can only cut from vom Tag, not thrust.  You do not use guards in the Krieg, only in the Zufechten.  Ergo, it naturally and unarguably follows that there is no left   vom Tag, because you can never use it if you follow Liechtenauer’s instructions.

People have to learn that there is more than one art, and that you cannot make determinations about any given art by conflating it with others.  One person commenting on the blog even went so far as to say that Fiore has a left guard similar to vom Tag, so it must be acceptable; that is one of the most ludicrous statements I have ever read.